Work First, People Last

By Preston Quesenberry

Vol. 18, No. 1, 1996 p. 7

In the name of "independence," and "responsibility," states around the nation have been implementing "Work First" programs designed to force welfare recipients into the workforce. While such programs are supported by their proponents as "giving families the help they need to become self-sufficient," they effectively entail using public dollars to coerce welfare recipients into the private sector's lowest-paying and least desirable occupations, with little hope of advancing from them. While welfare recipients are obviously not forced at gunpoint to engage in society's most-exploitative jobs, the time-limits and strict sanctions which accompany Work First legislation effectively coerce them with the threat of starvation.

The federally-mandated Job Opportunity and Basic Skills (JOBS) programs had at least partially emphasized long-term training for work which really could provide participants with a modicum of independence and self-sufficiency. Thanks to federal waivers, however, the Southern states of Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia have been revamping the JOBS programs and shifting the emphasis to getting welfare recipients into the workforce immediately. This fact is boldly proclaimed in government press releases boasting about the new programs, as in this statement from the office of North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt: "County departments of social services across North Carolina began shifting their welfare families from JOBS, a program that emphasized long-term training, to Work First, which emphasizes short-term training, work, and personal responsibility."

Commenting on Virginia's Work First program, Virginia Poverty Law Center attorney Steve Myers pointed out the basic problems with this model, a model he said has "become the vogue and spread like wildfire among state governors." "According to the Work First model, education and training doesn't work; what works is work," Myers said. "The problem with this strategy is that half of AFDC recipients don't even have a high school education. How they are going to support themselves at the end of the time limit without further education or training is hard to understand."

Practically, most Work First participants can't support themselves at the end of the time limit. Finding jobs as cashiers at fast food restaurants or retail stores,earning five to six dollars an hour at part time work, former AFDC recipients--most of whom are mothers with children--cannot be expected to support themselves without government subsidized child care (while they are working), Medicaid (because most of these low-wage employers don't provide health insurance), and other benefits just to get by. In Cobb County, Georgia, for example, the average salary for Work First participants is just $727 a month before taxes--hardly enough to allow a mother of two to become "independent" and "self-sufficient."

Following a philosophy that all work--no matter how low paying, routinized, exploitative, or monotonous--has intrinsic value, proponents of Work First boast of the programs' effectiveness in getting welfare-recipients employed while ignoring what kind of employment is being obtained. In press releases, Georgia brags of putting five thousand welfare recipients to work, North Carolina of placing 9,239 participants (twice as many as JOBS did in the same period a year earlier) , but neither boasts of the average salary or nature of the jobs being acquired.

So valued is work as an end in itself, that state governments are willing to subsidize the supply of human resources to low-wage employers not only indirectly through publicly funded medical insurance and child care, but also directly by paying employers to hire welfare recipients. Both Mississippi and Virginia, for example, divert AFDC and Food Stamp benefits to pay employers one dollar for every hour that a former welfare recipient works for them.

Instead of subsidizing private employers, perhaps states should guarantee a minimum standard of living. Instead of forcing "responsibility" on welfare recipients, perhaps they should force responsibility on private employers to provide a decent wage, health insurance, and reasonably attractive work. Furthermore, instead of taking the insufficiencies of the current JOBS program as proof that "education and training don't work," perhaps state governors and legislators should see them as proof that education and training programs require more funds and resources. This would be the true road to independence and self-sufficiency.

Preston Quesenberry is a graduate student at Emory University's Institute of Liberal Arts.